November 24, 2017

Joy and Sorrow

16 02 02 labyrinth at Brookgreen Gardens

Photo by Georgia Springer

How can pain and happiness sit together in our heart at the same time? The poet William Blake made this paradox more understandable, even inviting: “Joy and woe are woven fine, a clothing for the soul divine.” The next lines contain the paradox: “Under every grief and pine, runs a joy with silken twine.”

In recent months, I have noticed this juxtaposition of joy and sorrows as I review parts of my life. One of our ministers thought it was a good topic for a Sunday evening vespers service. In helping to prepare the service, I came across the famous Blake verse, which I vaguely remembered from high school English perhaps, but had never absorbed. Working with the Blake phrase opened up layers of another gift for healing, the power of music.

Growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s, I sang in the youth choir at the large downtown Methodist Church in Jackson, Mississippi. The youth sang in most Sunday night services, and our introit was nearly always the beautiful and familiar hymn, “Now the Day is Over.” Complicated feelings wondered through my soul those evenings, without a clear resting place. The hypocrisy of religion and race was too evident to miss but too big to absorb. “Shadows of the evening steal across the skies,” I sang week after week. Somehow, even in that large white-only sanctuary, I felt anchored in this ritual of sound and escape into harmony.

As a teenager, our choir sang the first verse in unison then moved into the beautiful four-part harmonies that hung together with melancholy and comfort. I focused on the tenor or bass, harmonies, never noticing as a teenager how the alto worked with the melody.

At the small vespers service, two altos and I were to open with this hymn, singing a cappela. When we practiced in the music room just before the service, the unison first verse went fine, but Blake’s “joy and woe” surfaced in the harmonies in the next verses. The altos were fine, but holding the melody became a problem for me. Three measures from the end, the parts join on E, two notes above middle C. Then, the altos moved down a step to D, but I could not hold the melody on E because the dissonance was too difficult. I kept sliding down to the alto line. Finally, after a few times through, I held the dissonance for the measure, and then breathed easier as the altos moved down a half step to C sharp in the last measure. In this final measure the harmony was familiar and pleasing-to-the ear, what musicians call a “minor third.”

Then we headed into the sanctuary. The unison verse went well as expected. Then, I girded my adult resources, haunting memories and dissonance in tow, and sang my part holding steady. I resisted the pull of the altos, our voices together and pure, an awkward half note apart. I heard all the joy and woe in my ear without needing any resolution, as if that Sunday night complexity of vespers in my teen years had found a resting place inside of me some 50 years later.

In the service, we went around the circle and each of the dozen or so present shared memories of their Sunday nights. Some spoke of their teen years, others of more recent days. Alice, a friend from the church’s Poetry and Spirit group, read one of her compositions:

Nothing so far
but strangeness,
A curiosity in the
moonlight. All
the known and unknown
woven together –
questions whispered,
answers unspoken.

Inside, a labyrinth, a circle
with no beginning,
no end – perhaps only
wanderings of the
mind. We beat
against the questions
circling like moths
around light – all that
fluttering.

We look for
answers, but return
to circles. Why not
seek the moonlight
and find the
strangeness
a comfort.

People speak of peeling away the layers of the onion to get at more levels of emotion. That night at vespers, I felt instead like I was growing new onions in the garden, with fresh layers of love and trust and resilience, like silken twine glowing in the moonlight. With the harmonies, dissonant and pleasing alike, along with the shared stories, I found comfort, as I do digging in my garden.

“Through the long night watches, may the angels spread,” we sang, “Their white wings above me, watching round my bed.”

 

Comments

  1. This is lovely, Bill, and inspiring. I wish I had studied music and could understand it the way you do. I certainly understand the joy of singing with others, and holding notes–I learned that at UUFR and miss the experience dearly. Best love to you from Maine and good wishes for a lovely holiday out there in Carolina. Spare a thought for me when you sing carols in the sanctuary!

    • Bill Finger says:

      A pleasure to hear memories of your learning to hold music notes at UUFR. I think Unitarians Universalists often get a bad rap on not singing well — I used to hear that a lot, but not so often with our wonderful music director Yuri Yomamoto on the case! Look forward to hearing how The Crane Dance hit you. I think it’s basically the same as those early drafts you read before you moved away but so much better organized and polished now — sure hope so!

  2. Tom Silverio says:

    Pain and happiness co-existing is an interesting and, as you point out, a challenging thought. Your blog brings to mind a notion I first heard in the movie Shadowlands, when C S Lewis contemplates how he will suffer after his wife dies. She gently explains to him that the pain he will experience then is part of the joy now, and the joy now will be part of the pain then, that’s the deal. A beautiful piece of writing that took a long time to sink in for me.

    • Bill Finger says:

      Thanks Tom for reminding me of C.S. Lewis — I need to go back and read him again. Just last week he came up when talking with a person about a deeper spiritual power in contrast to looking outside ourselves to the heavens, to higher places. She mentioned Lewis’ character in The Lion, Witch and Wardrobe, I think, talking about a deeper magic.